J.J. Hickson rebounds from life’s ups, downs
Deaths in family made the forward “stronger”
Those who know J.J. Hickson know the smile and know the seriousness. The two are as intertwined as they are exclusive. He has cried through the sunniest of days, and smiled through some of the darkest.
Survival, in this world, demands a well-timed sense of humor as much as it demands reflection and perspective. And Hickson, the Nuggets’ burly power forward, has survival hard-wired into him.
On the court, it’s been a necessity. He is the starting center for the Nuggets in place of injured JaVale McGee, most nights bodying up against taller, bigger players.
“He’s undersized almost every night,” coach Brian Shaw said.
Hickson, at 6-foot-9 and 242 pounds, was so very much looking forward to sliding back to his natural position of power forward. He’d been there, done that at the center position, logging 80 games there as the starter for the Portland Trail Blazers before moving to Denver last summer during free agency. When he signed his three-year contract, he was told he would only be used at center “in a pinch.”
That pinch came five games into the season when McGee removed himself from a game at Phoenix and hasn’t played since.
It’s not the first time Hickson has adjusted when life took an unexpected turn.
Back in Atlanta, one of his two hometowns — Fort Lauderdale, Fla., being the other — at his grandmother’s house, a palatial estate he bought for her when the NBA money started rolling in, Hickson has a bedroom. In that room he has pictures of the mother he didn’t get to know as well as a son should. His mom, Keena, died of kidney failure when he was in seventh grade.
“I have a ton of pictures,” Hickson said. “A lot of pictures. Every couple of months I go back and look at them and it brings a smile to my face. That kind of, I don’t want to say heals my wounds, but it’s definitely comforting to see my mother’s face. And you can always go back to that moment in whatever picture it was and remember like it was yesterday.”
He remembers his mom being “very outgoing. Tall. Just a good person, in general. Good person with pure heart.”
Hickson describes his grandmother, Marie Myers, the same way.
When Hickson lost his mother, Myers simultaneously lost a daughter. It was not the first one. Myers’ eldest daughter, Karen, died of a brain aneurysm three years earlier, leaving a daughter. Myers took the kids, Hickson and Altovice, moved them from Florida to Georgia and raised them.
But Altovice was battling sickness. The trips to a hospital and treatments for an ever-worsening case of sickle cell anemia were piling up. In 2004, Myers buried her too after she succumbed to the disease.
“Me and my grandmother are the last two standing, so to speak,” Hickson said.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s life,” Hickson said. “I’m a firm believer that we were all born to die and unfortunately you don’t expect to lose those people at such an early age. But it happened. It’s something I’ve dealt with, and I think it made me a stronger individual.”
Dwight Howard stopper
In 2006, Sidney Lowe, the head coach at North Carolina State, and Larry Harris, an assistant, sat in Myers’ living room, having just eaten dinner. While they were wearing calm faces on the outside, their insides were tied in knots. Lowe was fairly new, having coached one season at N.C. State.
He’d gotten in on recruiting Hickson late in the process, but this was his moment to sell himself, sell the university, sell the vision he had for the future of Wolfpack basketball. He needed players such as Hickson, a top 20-rated power forward out of Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., to jump-start the program.
Hickson’s head was split even between Tennessee and N.C. State, but Myers took the guesswork out of it that night.
“J.J.,” she said, “the Lord is telling me this is where you should go. You should go with these two men.”
Raleigh, N.C., was Hickson’s next stop.
“When grandma said that,” Lowe said, “I felt pretty good.”
And Hickson delivered, finishing with averages of 14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. He hit 59 percent of his shots.
He left after one season. “I felt like I was ready,” Hickson said. “Why not?”
And the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a young superstar in LeBron James, a defensive-minded coach in Mike Brown and designs on getting the final pieces to challenging the Orlando Magic for the Eastern Conference crown, had eyes for Hickson.
Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt, then an assistant with the Cavaliers, was there.
“(Orlando’s Dwight) Howard was a big, athletic big man and Hickson was a big, athletic player who could move,” Hunt said.
The Cavaliers drafted Hickson 19th overall in the 2008 NBA draft.
“I wasn’t aware of whatever they had planned for me and Dwight,” Hickson said. “I’m a kid from the south side of Georgia, I was just trying to come in, fit in and not mess up.”
Wanting something more
Hickson sees his career path so much more clearly now.
“My second or third year, I wasn’t content with just not messing up,” he said. “I wanted to be some type of player in this league, and I think I’m still working at that.”
What flipped that switch?
“All the hard work I put in,” Hickson said. “I figured I’m not working this hard to not mess up, I’m working this hard to be the best player I can be.”
The Cleveland years, three of them, were a roller-coaster ride. He would play, then not play. He would be restricted to do a few things on the court and scolded if he tried to break the mold. Hickson’s freeing moment came with the Trail Blazers.
Cleveland traded him to Sacramento in 2012, but he barely had unpacked his suitcases before the Kings waived him. Portland scooped him up, and in the 2012-13 season showed faith in his ability to fill a significant role on a night-in, night-out basis.
“Last year was the first year I really just played,” Hickson said. “I played valuable minutes to a point where a team depended on me to come in and do a certain job every night. In Cleveland, it programmed my mind to work a certain way and I kind of forgot how to not be a robot.”
The Cavaliers had the best record in the league a couple of the seasons he was there, leaving Hickson little room to complain. He also credits Brown for downloading an invaluable amount of basketball knowledge that he still draws on to this day.
But the Portland experience, and now with the Nuggets, has given him wings. Not a bad place to be for a young man whose hardships could have swarmed him under.
“Who hasn’t had their trials and tribulations?” Hickson said. “My biggest trials and tribulations were death within my family. It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you bounce back.”